Lost in what has been a wild first four days of the 2016 college football season was Minnesota coach Tracy Claeys’ gamble to go for a late two-point conversion while nursing a seven-point lead on Thursday.
This highly unconventional philosophy merits some study.
Is Claeys absolutely nuts? Who goes for two when an extra point would give you an eight-point lead — meaning, at worst, overtime — and forces your opponent to make a two-point conversion after a touchdown?
Or is Claeys actually onto something? By going with his gut, has he stumbled onto a strategy — finish the game on offense — that has more merit as scoring continues to increase in college football?
“Maybe it’s more me being a defensive coach and you know what it’s like having to survive last-minute drives,” said Claeys, a longtime defensive coordinator until last season. “The way I look at it is if I was given a choice — you could have the ball on the 3-yard line with one play to win or be on defense — I’d take offense. I think most people would with the way the rules are nowadays against a defense. I have a two-point card like everybody else. On ours, it says when you score and go up late, you want to go for two.”
The back story from last Thursday: Minnesota scored a touchdown to take a 30-23 lead over Oregon State with 1:27 left in the game. Instead of kicking the extra point to go up eight, Minnesota failed on a two-point try that would have basically iced the game at nine. The Golden Gophers still won 30-23.
Last year, Claeys used the same strategy to successfully go ahead by nine in a 32-23 win over Illinois. Claeys has a degree in mathematics but said he hasn’t crunched the probability rate numbers. He appears to mainly be going off a gut feel and his players’ knowledge in advance that they’re going for two late.
“Let’s take the chance of getting three yards,” Claeys said. “I tell our guys on two-point tries, ‘I feel like we should be successful over half the time.'”
Here’s where Claeys inadvertently may be on to something.
Admittedly, I thought Claeys was nuts. I still think the way to go is placing the burden on your opponent to convert the coin flip that is a two-point conversion instead of you needing to make a two-pointer.
But what if you’re good at two-point conversions? Last season, Football Bowl Subdivision teams converted two-point tries 39 percent of the time. That’s up from 34 percent in 2014 but below the 2013 rate of 46 percent.
Now look at Minnesota. The Golden Gophers were 3-for-3 on two-point conversions last season. From 2008-15, they converted 11 of 17 (65 percent). Over that period, they succeeded on two-point tries well above the national average.
I asked Harold Sackrowitz, a professor of statistics at Rutgers who authored a study called “Refining the After-Touchdown Decision,” to examine the Minnesota situation. When Sackrowitz, who has studied two-point conversions since the 1990s, initially heard Minnesota’s details, he said going for one was probably the better choice.
But then Sackrowitz examined win probability rates using different two-point conversion success rates and based on how many possessions are left in the game. The extra-point success rate in his calculations always stayed the same at 98.7 percent. (Minnesota didn’t miss an extra point in 2015, nor on Thursday.)
Sackrowitz believes if a team up seven late is able to make two-point tries 35 percent or 44 percent of the time, the best strategy is to kick the PAT. But if that same scenario plays out and the team has a 50 percent success rate on two-point tries, his card says go for two.
“Getting into overtime is half a win; it doesn’t mean you win,” Sackrowitz said. “Avoiding overtime is not a bad idea.”
Drew Borland, a computer engineer and co-founder of SportSource Analytics, said he personally would have kicked in Claeys’ situation. But he noted Minnesota had a 60-percent success rate Thursday on down-and-distance plays that are most similar to two-point conversions.
“So even though yardage wasn’t easy to come by, Claeys rightfully felt they were good [over 50 percent] in that situation,” Borland said.
Last year against Michigan, Claeys had Minnesota go for the winning touchdown on the 1-yard line instead of trying a field goal to tie. Minnesota’s sneak attempt got stuffed on the game’s final play and Michigan won.
Stephen Prather, another co-founder at SportSource Analytics, said every coach has a certain risk profile.
“Given the available info, which is noisy and messy in situations like the ones Claeys was in, the decision [against Oregon State] was not that risky,” Prather said. “However, if Oregon State would have marched down and scored and converted a two-point conversion for the win, the decision would have seemed like a hugely risky decision.”
In other words, be prepared for hellacious second-guessing if going against conventional wisdom backfires. Claeys’ risk profile, for better or worse, is largely due to his experience coaching defense.
“I know on defense when you spread the field out, it’s not too hard to get 3 yards, in my opinion, more times than not,” he said. “If I thought [Oregon State would] go for two [if it had scored a touchdown], we wouldn’t do that. Most times they’ll kick and they’ll go to overtime. The momentum part has a lot to do with it.”
Nothing has been conventional about Claeys’ career. He is one of only nine active FBS coaches never to have played football after high school. Only Washington State‘s Mike Leach has less playing experience among FBS coaches than Claeys, according to ESPN.
Adding intrigue to Claeys’ two-point philosophy is he’s only on a three-year contract. He can be bought out for just $500,000 after this season, a minimal amount in major college football these days.
Criticize Claeys if you want. He’s sticking with the most unconventional two-point philosophy in college football.
Source: CBS Sports / Is it crazy or genius to go for two with a seven-point lead?